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Working Life of Horses
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Judith
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 Posted: Mon Dec 31st, 2007 02:13 pm
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Hello Dr. Deb

In a recent reply about buying a first horse you advised the poster to look for a horse of about 14 years old, and I was wondering about the working life of a horse.  If someone buys a 14 year old, about how much longer is it going to last?

I know that riding USA and UK riding is different - in the UK most horses are not normally broken to ride until they are at least 3 or 4 (not counting racing TBs), yet by the time it is in its teens many horses are showing "wear and tear" particularly if they have been doing competitions, endurance, hunting, eventing etc. and are starting to show signs of joint disease.  I think most people would be quite wary about buying a 14 year old horse unless they knew its history and how much work it had done.
Many horses advertised for sale don't pass the vet due to joint problems.

Is this because we do nearly all our riding out on the tarmac roads?  Unless an owner has their own arena we mostly have to ride out on the roads, walking and trotting, and then trying to get "off road" on the system of bridlepaths across farm land, which aren't that numerous.  The people who have access to miles of mountains and uncultivated country are few in number.  I don't know what the riding conditions are in the USA, but I imagine that there are not the lanes and side roads that there are in the UK, so most horses do most of their work on the trail or in the arena - consequently they wouldn't be subject to so much concussion and wear.

Of course, there are a lot of horses in the UK that are working well into their teens and twenties and even the top competition horses are lasting and competiting longer, but it isn't that long ago that anything over 12 was considered old and some horses were simply retired at 15 and turned out in the field.

Also I know that many horses in the USA are broken to ride at a very early age (however unadvisable) but presumably they still keep working until their late teens and twenties.

Any thoughts about this?

Judith




DrDeb
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 Posted: Mon Dec 31st, 2007 04:23 pm
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Judith, you want to be careful what situation you are envisioning.

If you're trying to be on the Olympic team, it's a different world from ordinary, normal people -- and especially the first-time owner -- who want to buy a horse.

The Olympian has resources that ordinary people do not have; otherwise, as we all know, they could not be Olympians. In other words, they either have money or they have sponsorship money, because it is not possible to get on or stay on an Olympic team without money.

Money allows people to take chances or push the horse harder than would be safe or advisable (strictly on an economic basis) for anybody else. The Olympian either has, or has access to, continual veterinary prophylaxis, and this is what it is going to take to maintain what is called a "top athlete".

Moreover, at least sometimes, the Olympian herself -- or more commonly since most of the riders are mere pilots, the team to which she belongs -- actually has somebody on it (a coach) who is in charge of, or who has large influence over, whatever horses are purchased. This highly experienced person does in fact have the knowhow to select and train younger horses, and it is he or she who puts the rider and the horse together as a winning combination.

The ordinary person, and again especially the first-time owner, does not have this expertise. In the balance, then, it is not advisable for them to purchase horses younger than about 14.

As to working life: yes, the later the horse gets ridden hard enough to work him, the longer his working life is likely to be. Some horses started at age two do, as you note, have long working lives: my Sadie mare, who lived to be 38 and who was regularly ridden until she was past 30, was one of them. But she was not put into "futurities" or competitions of any kind as a two or three year old, and in fact, she spent the years between two and five mostly out in a field. This was the lucky part for her. Then at six she was purchased by somebody who really wanted to ride her, and who mostly wanted to trailride, with a little halter and Western Pleasure-type showing thrown in. That person owned her until she was 14, when I bought her. I rode the hide off her, and we did a whole array of different kinds of things. I didn't lighten up on her until she was past 24, when she got a couple of years off. Then at 26 she came back into work as a "schoolie", getting four or five rides per week until she was 32.

Without question (and as I know you have seen the "Ranger" paper, I know you know this) I believe that it is wiser to start under-saddle work at age four. But you can break down a horse started at four or later by riding it badly, just as you can preserve the soundness of a horse that was started at two by riding it well. What the rider does has more effect on the horse's wellbeing than any other single factor.

As to your side-question about why older horses so often don't pass the vet exam: there are two reasons. One is that the horse really is not sound enough to be useful. The other is that the vet is more likely to flunk a horse the higher the buying price is. This is because there's more at stake politically for him; if the buyer has enough dough to buy an expensive horse, they likely also have the savvy and the dough to sue him if he passes a horse that later proves to be, or becomes, unsound. No, instead, you must use the vet in a kinder way. You let him flunk the horse if that's what he needs to do, for either reason. Then you confer with the vet, and off the table you ask him what kind of support it's going to take for you to keep the horse in the kind of work you're planning to do, and what the vet considers the prognosis to be under that kind of work. If the vet says, "he can't do that kind of work at all", then don't buy the horse. But if the vet says, for example, "well, he'll need a diabetic diet and special trim and shoes," then you see if you can supply those things. You make yourself knowledgeable about unsoundnesses too. And then you bring that together with what the vet says and you decide on that basis. It is, you know, perfectly OK for you to buy a horse that has flunked a vet check. Generally, it lowers the price, and it will draw you and your vet together as a team to maintain the horse.

So what is the working life of a 14 year old purchase going to be? If he's sound or can be maintained as if sound when the person gets him, and the person rides well, it's unlikely that they'll have less than 5 years' use out of the horse. If the animal is smaller, if it is Arab or part-Arab, if it vetted totally sound, if it has good conformation, if it was started later, and if it continues to be saddled right, have its hoofs trimmed and/or shod right, and ridden well, it may very well be a pleasure to its owner well up into its twenties. That makes, let us say, 10 years from date of purchase.

And these will be 10 GOOD years for the owner -- 10 years where a horse with a developed understanding, some wisdom, some experience, and steadiness, can teach the owner. 10 such years, I can personally attest, are worth 20 years spent on horses that buck, rear, run off, balk, run into traffic, shy all the time, etc., which are problems the first-time owner not only cannot solve but should not even be trying to solve.

There is no benefit to anybody -- horse or person -- in dangerous, unpleasant rides, and the art of horsemanship does not -- and should not -- consist of enduring the school of hard knocks. A better horsewoman is NOT somebody who has gone through this school, but rather somebody that has been taught (hopefully, by a horse) to use their head and find their "feel".

Best wishes -- Dr. Deb

 

Joe
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 Posted: Tue Jan 1st, 2008 03:04 am
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Well put.  Very well put.

FWIW, we have a 24 yr old Arab who is hale, hearty, and fully up to performing and ENJOYING moderate work.  He has a bit of artheritis and some other issues that we monitor.  We are careful with him, but he is certainly not a candidate for retirement.

Joe

MarionD
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 Posted: Tue Jan 1st, 2008 03:50 pm
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There is no benefit to anybody -- horse or person -- in dangerous, unpleasant rides, and the art of horsemanship does not -- and should not -- consist of enduring the school of hard knocks. A better horsewoman is NOT somebody who has gone through this school, but rather somebody that has been taught (hopefully, by a horse) to use their head and find their "feel". Oh boy, do I ever agree with the above statement!  Been there and done that.  There are one or two discussions on other forums where several people believe that it is beneficial to ride problematic or difficult horses because it makes one a better rider.  These people claim that buying a trained and balanced horse gives a rider the ability to more or less 'cheat' in their equitation because that horse is easier to ride.  I agree with Dr. Deb.  Also, I think that for some people, going through the school of hard knocks can make one a little bit bitter, especially toward those that didn't attend that school.

Judith
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 Posted: Tue Jan 1st, 2008 06:41 pm
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Hello and thank you for your reply. 

I agree with all that you said, but it didn't really answer the question of whether it is the way we ride horses on the tarmac roads in the UK that affects their working life.

I have ridden working horses in their 20s, whereas I know of a very well cared for horse now 20 that is too affected by arthritis to continue to be ridden, probably because he did lots of trotting on the tarmac roads as a young horse.

I certainly hope that my own horse carries on well into his 20s.

DrDeb
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 Posted: Tue Jan 1st, 2008 08:06 pm
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Judith, OK, specifically to the tarmac question. It isn't the tarmac. It's the judgement and knowledgeability of the rider, as I said before.

As to judgement: When you ride your own horse down the tarmac (for you U.S. readers, "tarmac" in British-ese means "asphalt" in American-ese) -- do you not still make an effort to select the footing? In other words, if there are stones in the range of golfball-sized scattered on top of the pavement, do you not try to avoid those? Instead, do you not look for the pea-gravel or mixed tarmac-and-dirt that are generally at the side of the road? And where the pavement falls off abruptly, and there is no shoulder or space at the side of the road at all because there is a ditch or a wall, do you not then moderate your pace?

Judith -- I imagine that YOU do all of these things. I can also imagine a kind of person who would not do any of them.

As to knowledgeability: Do you not try to get your horse trimmed and shod the very best you can? The world is slowly changing here, and even many horseshoers who have been trained by the Royal Company of Farriers or certified by the American Farriers Association are still unable to effectively address the single commonest and most harmful condition of the hooves, which is run-under heels. This is so common that one may hardly find any domestic horse, anywhere, that does not have the feet far out of antero-posterior balance in this way. Gene Ovnicek has the right take on how to fix this, along with a growing company of others, and if you are not clear on it, then I'd suggest a trip over to his website at http://www.hopeforsoundness.com. The veterinarian worldwide is still liable to recommend bar-shoes and wedge pads, and this is behind the times; as I say, review the cause-and-effect sequence outlined by Ovnicek. Maintaining the feet in proper antero-posterior balance will have a tremendous effect in preventing arthritic changes to all parts of the legs, preventing navicular disease, and promoting the horse's ongoing soundness.

But to return to the question of riding the two year old: I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a High School class in Alberta about this. These kids are all interested in rodeo, i.e. barrel racing for the most part, and starting horses at two is very common where they live, indeed it is the norm. So to give this presentation, I brought along the skeleton of a two year old horse, that has almost no limb epiphysis fused, and no vertebral physis fused anywhere in its body above the knee. And I explained to the kids that anywhere there is an unfused epiphysis or physis, that means there is growth still going on, and cartilage still present, at that point. And they were really impressed. But you know, I also had to tell them, "OK, look, you've learned this because you were actually able to see and touch the skeleton. But I am going to warn you, when you go home, your parents are not going to believe you, and they are not going to want to change what they have always been doing."

My main hope there was that the messengers would not get "shot" by being told that they are crazy.

Hope this answers your questions. -- Best wishes, and Happy New Year -- Dr. Deb

Joe
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 Posted: Wed Jan 2nd, 2008 03:20 pm
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That's a tough one all right.  Here we see many horses started at 2 or 3 (and many people think they waited extra long at 3).  Horses at 3 or 3 are so big and strong, how can it hurt, goes the thinking.  I know an overlarge woman who starts riding her saddlebreds at 2.  She is also not a very balanced rider.  Talk about the worst of all worlds.

Joe


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